Reporting and writing conducted by James Gao under the instruction of Arelis R. Hernández at AAJA JCamp 2019.
ATLANTA, GA. – If Georgia State University’s 2017 construction of a brand-new football stadium was meant to give their brand-new football team a morale boost, it seems as if their $30 million venture may have been fruitless. With a 29-77 all-time record and continued difficulty recruiting, the GSU Panthers are coming to terms with a difficult realization: they aren’t very good. In fact, some students have already given up on their athletes. “People care more about Georgia Tech football than they do about our own team,” one graduate student remarks unapologetically.
Although GSU students feel the anguish of another football season devastatingly barren of wins, many are oblivious to the painful history of the grounds where their present football stadium lies. Georgia State Stadium - previously known as Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, sits squarely between some of Atlanta’s poorest areas by median income – Adair Park, Mechanicsville, Peoplestown, Pittsburgh, and Summerhill. The lifelong residents of these working-class communities are certainly no strangers to stadiums, however, having hosted the Centennial Olympic Games in 1996 and, before then, serving as home to the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for nearly 40 years.
When the Braves announced that they would be leaving the stadium in 2013, Georgia State University offered to purchase it and redevelop the surrounding area for its collegiate football team. As local residents prepared to welcome yet another stadium to their towns, however, they reflected on a troubling past, one where development has been synonymous with gentrification and division. In the 1950s, these districts – then known as the Washington-Rawson region – saw a line bulldozed through their streets in order to clear a path for new Interstate highways, displacing thousands and placing an immovable physical barrier in the center of a low-income black community in decline. In the 1960s, the construction of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium scared away business in droves, resulting in Summerhill, Mechanicsville, and Peoplestown becoming three of metro Atlanta’s most destitute neighborhoods.
After the first whispers of redevelopment began to spread once again, locals were determined to ensure that their families and friends did not befall a similar fate. In 2015, a group of neighborhood activists formed the Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition (TFCBC), aiming to present to authorities a community benefits agreement (CBA) - essentially, a contract mandating the protection of certain rights for locals. The plan, a collaboration between city council members and representatives of municipal organizations, was ambitious, detailed and comprehensive; a 2016 TFCBC poster lists demands ranging from investments in infrastructure, guarantees against displacement and eviction, upgraded energy and water efficiency, and the construction of a grocery store to improve accessibility to fresh produce. (A majority of the region surrounding Turner Field is considered a food desert by the USDA.)
Despite ensuing protests in city council meetings and across the GSU campus, the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority (AFCRA) signed a deal with Carter and Oakwood (the development firm representing GSU) in early 2017 without adopting the goals of the TFCBC’s community benefits agreement. Community leaders and GSU students reacted with fury; the GSU campus soon became engulfed in heated debate. Senior Brandon Andrews was only a freshman when he, along with many other students, protested the redevelopment of Turner by interrupting city council meetings, picketing the president’s office, and stationing themselves on the grounds of Turner Field to protest the university’s lack of receptiveness to their demands, resulting in the creation of a “Tent City” that had to be forcibly taken down by police. “It was rough,” he concedes grimly. Some students, decrying their university as “Gentrification State,” were arrested or barred from campus when they confronted the university’s president, Mark Becker, over his refusal to discuss the merits of a CBA. Andrews continues, “there were a lot of student government meetings,” so many to the point that “the student government president pretty much said, ‘stop asking me [about the CBA], I’m not going to talk to the President [of the school] about it anymore.’” Becker never acquiesced to the students’ demands, arguing that the school, having a sole responsibility for its own well-being, “cannot pay for something if it is not a university activity” and characterizing the TFCBC as a group of “self-interested individuals” with “personal agendas.” “What they’re telling you is, this is a poor neighborhood and we don’t want it to get better. We want it to stay poor and we just want you to put money in there to keep it the way it is,” he responded in a Georgia State Signal interview. Although student protests mostly died down in defeat after the completion of the purchase, several students ended up permanently leaving the university in protest. Now, Andrews says, “We don’t really talk about any of it anymore.”
Senior Brandon Andrews of Georgia State: “We don’t really talk about any of it anymore.”
Two years after GSU and Carter finalized the Turner Field redevelopment plan without the legally-binding CBA that community activists had asked for, many still express resentment over the lack of transparency and inclusivity in the planning process. Micah Rowland is the former chair of NPU-V, one of Atlanta’s twenty-five “neighborhood planning unit” advisory boards that includes Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville. “We stood there, we fought the building of this stadium… I stood in front of city council, I stood in front of the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, but right now, it’s irrelevant. It’s already done,” Rowland, a current systems administrator for GSU, says, a hint of defeat in his voice. He suggested a desire not to reopen an old wound: “You talk to all these activists [who fought for the CBA] and they’re not going to say anything negative. Because it’s there. It’s there now,” he said. “People aren’t really engaged. Gentrification is continuing.”
Former NPU-V Administrator Micah Rowland: “It’s irrelevant. It’s already done.”
Just as impactful as the effects of redevelopment is the apparent rift that the fight for a CBA seems to have exposed between leaders within the NPU-V community. Some members of the now-defunct TFCBC say that the reality of the final redevelopment plan was a far cry from their worst fears. Wanda B. Rasheed is the current treasurer for the Organized Neighbors of Summerhill (ONS), a nonprofit organization that continues to participate in redevelopment negotiations with both the university and Carter and Oakwood. She reflects back on the negotiating process with pleasant satisfaction. “Honestly, it was a win-win for Summerhill,” she said. “While they didn’t want to sign a legally-binding CBA, we felt as if we were heard. They accepted our recommendations, and they implemented them even without the binding agreement.” The new developments in Summerhill excite her, she said. “We can have the old [businesses and homes] with the new. This is a community, and things are changing.” Regardless, she indicated, her goal was still to protect her district’s residents: “We are still representing Summerhill. We are not sleeping on any of the issues surrounding the development. We are asking the tough questions. And we just want to make sure that at the end of the day, that everything is OK for everybody.”
To others, however, including former State Senator and 2017 Atlanta mayoral candidate Vincent Fort, Rasheed and ONS’s reconciliatory approach represents a betrayal of the constituents they were supposed to represent. “The Organized Neighbors were gentrifiers who sold out their community,” he exclaimed with resentment. “They were gentrifiers who didn’t care about the poor and working-class community getting a greater community benefit from this redevelopment.” Fort, who worked closely with the Housing Justice League - an anti-gentrification advocacy organization - suggested that the debacle had put solidarity within low-income black communities to the test: “There was an element of racism on social media. People were saying mean things about African-Americans and promoting resistance to the deal.” The root cause? “There were white gentrifiers within Summerhill, within Mechanicsville, within Peoplestown. They are still gentrifying the community today."
Former State Sen. Vincent Fort: “They were gentrifiers who didn’t care about the poor.”
Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Regardless of perspective, no involved party can deny that there is an element of truth in Fort’s insistence that gentrification has proliferated as a result of the lack of a CBA. Even as she extols the business boom in downtown Atlanta, Rasheed admits that “[they’ve] had some renters… who have been displaced” and that “property taxes -- especially for our seniors -- are rising quickly.” Advocates for the initial CBA suggest that such an outcome could have been avoidable. “Community housing development organizations are no longer getting funding from the government as a result of the redevelopment,” Rowland laments. “There’s not gonna be any affordable housing anymore.” “I think that everything that we thought would come true came true, unfortunately,” Andrews assents. “Atlanta already has a huge homeless issue -- and I’m sure there’s going to be a lot more displacement as a result of all of this.”
Both on and off-campus, however, students and residents alike have begun to accept the Turner Field redevelopment plan as an immutable component of their lives. Sophomore Keyshawn Phillips will be one of the first students to move into 120 Piedmont next month, a 26-story privately-owned housing tower that looms over Georgia State Stadium. “I’ll be able to see into the stadium just from my dorm window,” he commented excitedly. Meanwhile, businesses revival in Summerhill is evident. Strolling down Georgia Avenue reveals many an establishment with newly-painted signs and bustling shoppers. “The Little Tart Bakeshop,” one elegant red sign reads. Another — a brewery — is named “Halfway Crooks.” “NOW OPEN!” posters and signs line new apartment complexes running all down the street. “Crime has, for certain, gone down in Summerhill,” Rasheed exclaims happily. Andrews agrees. “It is beneficial for the students, I mean, even if it is awful for the residents,” he says, sounding less-than-excited. “I have a friend who lives over in [Mechanicsville] and he says it is a much nicer place to live — it’s no longer considered a ghetto, or whatever it used to be.”
In a few years, the painful, complex redevelopment process will be forgotten by most. Seasons go by for the residents and business-owners in downtown Atlanta. Some are evicted. Some move in. And on the campus of Georgia State, the only reminder left of the months of protests, deliberate negotiations, and camping out on “Tent City” will be the football stadium itself; nowadays, the only thing left to stir up gripes and jumbles is its emptiness. “You know how big a football stadium is?” one junior asked with wide-eyed incredulity. “I think it was a waste of money.” She shrugs her shoulders, then walks away.
By: James Gao
At a public forum for college students hosted at the White House last week, Trump-appointed “opioid czar” Kellyanne Conway offered her own solution to the most dangerous drug epidemic in American history: more fast food. “You folks are reading the labels, they won’t put any sugar in their body, they won’t eat carbs anymore, and they’re very, very fastidious about what goes into their body,” Conway moped to the crowd of millennials. “And then you buy a street drug for $5 or $10, it’s laced with fentanyl and that’s it.
“So my advice is, eat the ice cream, have the French fry, don’t buy the street drug — believe me, it all works out,” she added, demonstrating once again the superior intellect and nuance that has kept her position as Counselor to the President safe amidst unending personnel shake-ups in the Trump White House. At the very least, she has anecdotal evidence to support her position — President Trump subsists himself on a diet of McDonalds and Diet Coke, and he’s never been addicted to opioids, of course.
The government is certainly complicit in giving unhelpful advice to its eleven million citizens who suffer from opioid addictions, but it must also answer to a much more serious charge: causing the opioid crisis in the first place. With decisive, well-informed government action, the proliferation of painkillers could have been nipped in the bud decades ago. However, misleading marketing, unbridled lobbying, and a hesitancy to reform allowed the opioid industry to thrive in America and spiral into an uncontrollable epidemic — and now, ordinary citizens are paying the price.
While the severity of the opioid crisis has only reached the wider public in the past few years, America’s culture of painkiller abuse truly emerged in 1996, with the initial release of Purdue Pharma’s oxycodone-based OxyContin drug. Before then, powerful opioids had only been used in cases of severe pains, such as cancer. However, marketed as “less abusable” than other similar painkillers on the market, Purdue encouraged the usage of OxyContin prescriptions to treat pains both severe and moderate. They incentivized major advocacy groups like the American Pain Society and the Joint Commission to label “Pain as the Fifth Vital Sign”, aimed at addressing the underassessment of pain symptoms in hospitals across the country. It persuaded sufferers to seek treatment for moderate and chronic pains in the form of prescription medication. Although pain is an inherently subjective phenomenon — one that cannot be measured in the same way heart rate and blood pressure are — a pain rating scale was created and touted as an important indicator of bodily health. As such, if patients rated their pain highly, doctors had no choice but to treat their pain as they would the diagnosis of a severe condition, even without any clinical measurements to support their prescriptions. The American Federation of Medical Boards expanded upon this painkiller-pushing, declaring the undertreatment of pain a punishable offense and reassuring doctors that “in the course of treatment, large doses of opioids were acceptable.” Hoping to appease advocacy groups and suffering patients alike, they began to overprescribe pain medication; when they did so, they looked towards the drug that they had been told was the safest and most effective: OxyContin.
Targeting inexperienced doctors, Purdue goaded state medical boards and groups like the Joint Commission to provide more and more narcotics access to patients. Their advertising campaign was relentless: executives handed out free OxyContin-branded golf balls and bucket hats to hospitals, referred to top drug marketers as the “Royal Court of OxyContin” and launched a sweeping TV ad series featuring groups of young adults who proudly gave testimony for the drug’s effectiveness and safety. “There’s no question that our best, strongest pain medicines are the opioids,” one Purdue commercial boasted. “They don’t wear out. They go on working. They do not have serious medical side effects, and they should be used much more than they are right now for patients in pain.” The company spent $4.6 million on advertising in 2001 alone, more than six times the amount they had spent just five years earlier. In the end, they were extremely successful: the total number of opioid prescriptions in the United States shot up from 76 million in 1991 to 259 million in 2015 — enough for a bottle of painkillers for every adult living in the country.
The problem, as it turned out, was that the aggressive marketing campaign Purdue had embarked on relied entirely on unsubstantiated claims and violations of federal law. Their assertion that the drug was “less abusable” than other drugs turned out to be unsupported by any clinical evidence, and the basis for their “low addiction rate” argument turned out to be a single medical study on hospitalized patients (who could not take the pills home) that had never been peer-reviewed. Ultimately, Purdue had recklessly and carelessly promoted heavy opioid prescriptions using exaggerated and falsified evidence, misleading tens of thousands of doctors and patients about the true danger their drug posed.
A government crackdown on Purdue’s shady advertising could have stopped the company in their tracks right then and there, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) failed to take the necessary regulatory action to hold the company accountable. The federal government grants the FDA immense powers to oversee the release of new drugs into the market, but the agency’s powers have been crippled into nonexistence by excessive privatization. As a result of the Prescription Drug User Fee Act of 1992, private pharmaceutical companies began to provide over half of the FDA’s annual budget, and drug manufacturers no longer questioned if their drug would be approved, only when. The FDA, now a fundamentally broken system, continues to sacrifice consumer protections for the benefit of “Big Pharma”.
The FDA’s first opioid misstep began with the approval of the falsified claim - “Delayed absorption as provided by OxyContin tablets is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug” - that appeared on the label of OxyContin bottles in 1996 during the drug’s initial release. “A label is a long and detailed document that includes information about who the drug is for, how it should be used, side effects and clinical studies. Every prescription drug has one. And every sentence is meticulously negotiated between a drug company and the FDA,” Caitlin Esch writes for Marketplace in December 2017. Yet the FDA had permitted the company to promote their drug using unverified information for nearly five years before an internal review in 2001 forced Purdue to remove the statement from its advertising.
Furthermore, they approved narcotics Zohydro and Opana on the basis that they address chronic pain — despite the fact that, to this day, no clinical studies have proven that opioids are a better treatment for these types of pains than other less addictive drugs. Kathleen Frydl, the author of the 2013 book The Drug Wars in America, writes, “To call the FDA “missing in action” on the opioid crisis would be charitable. It is closer to the truth to say that the agency launched and continues to abet it.” The FDA should have undertaken a deeper investigation into the effects of opioids after their initial label blunder over two decades ago. Instead, they have done nothing but turn a blind eye to the growing epidemic, allowing safety and security to fall to the wayward as the pharmaceutical industry tightens its grip on the agency.
In 2007, Purdue Pharma finally faced fines over their initial false advertising, amounting to around $600 million in fines for the infamous “reduced abuse liability” claim, some of the largest ever paid by a drug company for misbranding charges and a significant symbolic victory against the painkiller industry. But Purdue’s trial was too little, too late. The fines Purdue had to pay were minor in comparison to the huge profits that the company was bringing in; in 2012, they reported profits of $2.8 billion solely from OxyContin sales. The company continued operating without significant repercussions, and millions of Americans continued to get treatment from their addictive painkillers. In addition, Frydl notes that the format of the trial itself represented a regulatory failure in its own right: “Most of the criminal and civil prosecution of drug companies for “misbranding” has come at the hands of U.S. Attorneys and whistleblowers, even though the law that defines the violation...falls well within the purview of the FDA. Aggressive in opioid approvals, the FDA has been lethargic in responding to the consequences,” she concludes.
The FDA is not the only federal agency to failed the American public in taking comprehensive action against the opioid industry. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has failed to utilize one of the most powerful tools it has to thwart drug epidemics: quotas. The DEA regularly imposes production quotas on drugs to limit the manufacturing of those it deems dangerous. Yet, despite the clear risk that unfettered oxycodone and hydrocodone production poses to the general public, the DEA has yet to take action against the opioid industry, and painkiller production has increased 39-fold since 1991. As the author of the 2015 book American Pain John Temple puts it, “either Americans are in 39 times more pain than they were twenty years ago, or something else is wrong.”
Unsurprisingly, something is wrong with the way the DEA functions, a product of targeted lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry. In the past ten years, lobbyists have spent over $880 million opposing drug regulations at the federal and state levels, nearly eight times as much as the equally controversial gun lobby has spent during the same time period. Pharmaceutical companies regularly back legislation aimed at crippling the DEA’s regulatory power and have found themselves allies in Republican leaders in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Representative Tom Marino (R-PA) was once in consideration for the position of “drug czar” in the Trump administration before his ties to the pharmaceutical industry became clear. In 2016, he sponsored a bill that would “essentially make it impossible for the DEA to seize suspicious shipments” from drug distribution companies, who often oversupplied corrupt “pill mill” practices and pharmacies with opioids for the purposes of distributing them illegally for profit. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch convinced the Senate to pass the bill, which the drug lobby had spent $1.5 million on attempting to pass. Hatch himself saw $177,000 of that money; Marino received $100,000. The lobby also emerged victorious when Congress failed the Ryan Creedon Act of 2011, requiring physicians receive basic training on the risks of opioid prescriptions, and again in 2015 when $200,000 stuffed into the pocket of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz was able to convince him to stop the CDC from reducing opioid prescriptions for chronic pain — even though (as previously mentioned) there remains no evidence to support the idea that opioids are better at treating chronic pain than other less addictive painkillers.
Joseph T. Rannazzisi, who served as the former head of the DEA’s Office of Diversion before he was forced out of the agency in 2015, explained to the Washington Post that lobbying groups had inserted enforcement-soft and pharmaceutical-friendly executives into high-ranking positions in the DEA. They then used their position of power to shut down investigations into suspicious drug distributions. Similarly to the FDA, the DEA lost its clout to “Big Pharma” infiltration and lobbying that shuttered the agency’s role in opioid abuse regulation and enforcement.
The battle against opioid addiction also runs into problems at the state level, where small organizations, often founded by parents who have lost their children to painkiller overdoses, lead battles for opioid reform in state legislatures. Although the anti-pharmaceutical lobby raises over $4 million yearly, it is too small to pose a threat to larger companies, whose huge sums of money and lobbying prowess have killed dozens of narcotics-regulating bills nationwide. Their most powerful tool in doing so has been a series of nonprofit groups, collectively known as the Pain Care Forum (PCF), who contribute to the election of pro-pharmaceutical candidates in various state offices. Headed by none other than Purdue Pharma’s chief lobbyist, the group spent $24 million over nine years to support more than seven thousand state-level legislative candidates across the country, installing pharma-friendly elected officials into mayoral offices and state legislatures in all fifty states. The PCF hosts high-ranking state and federal officials regularly at monthly gatherings; resultantly, they have seen huge successes at the state level, such as requirements that some opioids be covered under health insurance policies in Maine. With only smaller, less well-funded groups championing opioid restrictions in state capitals, passing comprehensive painkiller regulations proves just as difficult statewide as it has on the national level — if not more so.
Effectively identifying pharmaceutical lobbying can prove even more difficult when they can disguise their intentions using advocacy groups that appear to have no connection to the painkiller industry. Oftentimes, lobbyists can find themselves unlikely allies in doctors’ groups like the American Medical Association that advocate for physician autonomy, the belief that there should be no restrictions on a doctor’s ability to prescribe. Other unexpected parties include American Cancer Society, seeking to ensure that no cancer patients have restrictions placed on their opioid access, and pain advocacy groups like the International Pain Foundation. These organizations, along with a multitude of others, receive large donations from painkiller manufacturers, a fact that state legislators are often unaware of. As such, they often push those lawmakers for opioid access on their donor company’s behalf, a form of indirect lobbying that hides the direct influence of the original drug companies.
Finally, the government realized the error in its ways last year and began encouraging doctors all across the country to limit their opioid prescriptions, intending to limit overdose deaths. But their actions actually had the opposite effect. When painkiller-addicted Americans found it harder and harder to gain access to opioids legally, they turned to pill mills and other black markets that have continued to thrive while the DEA willingly looks in the opposite direction. In other cases, limited access to opioids only meant that addicts turned to more potent opiates, like heroin and fentanyl. Studies indicate that painkiller abusers are forty times more likely to begin using heroin than the general public, and while legal opioid overdose rates have slowed, heroin and fentanyl overdose rates continue to rise. The federal government’s move to finally clamp down on rampant opioid abuse after years of willful ignorance was poorly planned. It failed to solve the problem of overdose and abuse in America — in fact, it only exacerbated it.
In February of 2018, Purdue Pharma announced that it would finally stop advertising OxyContin to doctors — but as Maine doctor Noah Nesin complains to NPR, “They’re about twenty years too late.” Now, opioid companies are switching their advertising message to one of unity and support, trying to repaint themselves as crucial partners with the American public in the fight against opioid abuse. But to many American families who have lost loved ones to drug addictions, the pharmaceutical companies’ words come off as hollow PR initiatives: how sorry can you truly be for causing a crisis that has earned you tens of billions of dollars? Purdue’s new marketing initiatives are merely emotionless apologies, attempts to save face when they would not save lives.
Otherwise, Purdue faces legal challenges very similar to the one it settled in 2007. Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against the company in recent months, including thirteen states like Ohio, whose case Emily Pan covered for the Ridge Political Review just last year. They all repeat similar arguments: that doctors and patients had been misled about the safety of OxyContin and that the pharmaceutical industry, too, was liable for the epidemic that plagued America. Yet there remains no indication that these suits will be settled any differently than they were nearly eleven years ago: with a heartfelt apology and millions in damages. Purdue continues to act as if throwing money at the problem - even just a small fraction of its OxyContin profits - will absolve them of responsibility in causing this deadly crisis. It doesn’t.
In the meantime, however, the cycle of special interest lobbying and pharmaceutical profit-gleaning continues, this time marketed around the opioid epidemic. Rather than science-backed remedies to ending opioid addiction, like medication-assisted treatment, drug companies have their own proposal: more opioids. They’ve suggested a new type of pill - an abuse-deterrent formulation, or an ADF - that is harder to snort or inject, marketing it as a safer alternative to opiates already on the market. And while ADFs are an important step in the right direction, the Center for Public Integrity notes that “it’s also a multibillion-dollar sales opportunity, offering drugmakers the potential to wipe out lower-cost generic competitors and lock in sales of their higher-priced versions, which cost many times more than conventional pills.” Meanwhile, Dr. Caleb Alexander, who works for John Hopkins’ Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, fears that “that they’ll contribute to a perception that there is a safe opioid, and there’s no such thing as a fully safe opioid.” But whether or not ADFs are the best choice for resolving the painkiller epidemic is irrelevant, because drug companies are pushing them anyways. The pharmaceutical lobby has returned in full force, recruiting unknowing parents of overdose victims to fight for the passage of ADF-mandating bills — and essentially, guaranteeing them huge profits. There is no doubt that ADFs are soon to become a reality in America, simply because drug companies have willed it so. Even now, these manufacturers are more concerned about their own interests than they are those of the American public.
There are certain realities that the government and drug companies alike are still unwilling to recognize: opioids aren’t needed for chronic pain, they aren’t “less abusable” than other painkillers that were previously on the market, and all of our tools to promote these truths have been crippled by corruption at the cost of the public interest. Any insistence otherwise is nothing but a falsehood perpetuated by pharmaceutical lobbyists. A failure to reckon with these facts led to the worst drug epidemic that America has ever seen. As a result, tens of thousands of innocent Americans continue to die to narcotic overdoses each year, and government officials do nothing but perpetuate a system that has failed them.
It takes a strong leader in a position of authority to stand up to the massive pharmaceutical industry that has continually sacrificed progress for the sake of profit.
It takes a powerful person to speak up on the behalf of ordinary Americans to fix regulatory agencies that have been broken for decades.
Or maybe - who knows? - it just takes one french fry.
By James Gao
One month before the special U.S. Senate election in Alabama, accused sexual predator Roy Moore was poised to take the vacant Congressional seat and strengthen the Republicans’ majority in the legislature. Meanwhile, progressives from all across the nation were furious about the state’s poor choice of candidate. “Poor Alabama,” they lamented.
On December 12th, 2017, those same progressives stood astonished when Moore was narrowly defeated by Democratic candidate Doug Jones. Although Moore’s campaign immediately demanded a recount, Jones’ margin of victory - about 21,000 votes - was large enough to exceed the automatic recount differential of 14,000 votes. Of course, these facts certainly did not impede Moore, who pursued his claim regardless. After all, his actions have proven that he cannot tell the difference between 14 and 21 anyways.
While Alabamians may have been fortunate enough to avoid electing an alleged paedophile to the U.S. Senate, the phrase, “poor Alabama” still rings true — but for an entirely different reason. The Deep South state, oftentimes stereotyped as a Confederate-loving, gun-slinging conservative hotbed, is also infamous for its record-breaking levels of destitution. In Alabama, the sixth-poorest state in the country, nearly one million people - almost twenty percent of the population - lives below the poverty line.
This poverty was the subject of a recent United Nations investigation, spearheaded by NYU law professor and UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston. Over fifteen days, his team visited Alabama, California, Puerto Rico and West Virginia among other areas of the United States to construct a detailed report on the threat of destructive poverty and the protection of human rights, which often go overlooked in developed nations. “Some might ask why a UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights would visit a country as rich as the United States. But despite great wealth in the US, there also exists great poverty and inequality,” he commented. Even in the world’s wealthiest country, suffering cannot be avoided, and Alston’s findings prove that poverty in America is still both rampant and hugely damaging.
Alston’s travels revealed the different faces of poverty across the nation. His investigation found that minorities, unsurprisingly, were disproportionately vulnerable to poverty, with black, Hispanic and Native American citizens mostly likely to be victims of impoverishment. These minorities suffer from an intrinsic system of lower wages, fewer job opportunities and longer working hours, with a poverty rate two to three times higher than whites. However, Alston denotes it misleading to label present-day poverty as a problem for minorities. “The face of poverty in America is not only black or Hispanic but also white, Asian and many other colors,” he writes in his report — that our system of economic inequality is not a racial problem, but an American one.
The extent of the poverty prevalent in the country would appall most well-to-do American families. Beneath the facade of the “American Dream” of hard work and prosperity, millions of Americans’ dreams lie out-of-reach; broken and unfulfilled. In Alabama’s “Black Belt” counties (named after their fertile black soil, which had once brought great wealth in a long-past plantation era), formerly prosperous communities are a shell of their former self. With nearly forty percent of the population in Lowndes, Perry and Bullock counties below the poverty line, southern Alabama exemplifies the meager living conditions of poor Americans and the extreme hardships they face.
In some areas, residents’ septic tanks remain unconnected to public sewage systems, replaced by an inadequate homemade PVC pipe system, which empty into nearby ditches and waste grounds. However, these dangerous open-air systems are often so leaky that they contaminate community water supplies. Flooding - or even just light rain - can spread sewage water rapidly, leading to widespread disease. As a result of these poor sanitary practices, residents of Butler County, Alabama, often fall ill with E. coli and other infectious bacteria. This has even resulted in the reemergence of hookworm, a harmful parasite commonly associated with the developing world. While hookworm thrives in communities with poorer sanitation in South America, Southeast Asia and South Asia, it was thought to be eradicated in the United States over forty years ago. Now, its recording in nineteen Alabamians marks the first known American hookworm infection in decades. Dr. Rojelio Mejia of the Baylor College of Medicine explains that “poor U.S. communities with poor sanitation were at risk for "neglected tropical diseases, which we ordinarily think of as confined to developing countries." While this problem is easily solvable by improving sanitary practices, the average income in these counties is less than $20,000 a year — and a single septic tank costs $15,000.
The problems with poverty in the United States extend far beyond just sanitation, however. Others interviewed by Alston during his investigation had lost all of their teeth as a result of lacking dental care on their healthcare plans, while others did not have consistent electricity provided to their homes. Another time, he witnessed a homeless man being ordered to move by a police officer.
“Where to?” the man asked.
The officer had no answer.
“This is not a sight that one normally sees. I'd have to say that I haven't seen this [in the First World],” Alston wrote of his experiences. “There are pretty extreme levels of poverty in the United States given the wealth of the country. And that does have significant human rights implications.” Healthcare, access to high-speed Internet and a “decent standard of living” - which includes a working sewage system - are considered basic human rights by the United Nations, but still do not exist in many poorer areas of the country. The United States lags far behind the rest of the Western world in this aspect, with some of the weakest healthcare and welfare systems of any developed country. Since 1996, the amount of Americans on welfare has declined from 4.6 million to 1.1 million — but not for a good reason. The strength of American welfare has dwindled over time as U.S. government officials introduce barrier after barrier to their programs, including higher mandatory work regulations and more prohibitive time restrictions; all the while, their funding for public programs is quietly shrinking. This has created a sect of the population isolated from both the welfare system and the job market. Having used up their quota on welfare money, and lacking basic education, healthcare, shelter or sanitation, these Americans are essentially at a dead end — a bad look for the famed “land of prosperity” and the home of the “rags-to-riches entrepreneur”. Instead, the poor are stigmatized as “wasters” and “lazy” (despite that a full-time minimum wage job does not provide an individual enough to feed himself without the aid of food stamps) and welfare has become a “waste of taxpayer dollars” instead of a tool to protect basic human rights. America has the lowest social mobility out of any “first-world” country, indicating that poverty is not only widespread, but also ineradicable.
This brings Alston to a blunt conclusion: that political problems are the true cause of endemic poverty. “The idea of human rights is that people have basic dignity and that it’s the role of the government—yes, the government!—to ensure that no one falls below the decent level… civilized society doesn’t say for people to go and make it on your own and if you can’t, bad luck.” Unfortunately, if Alston’s reasoning holds valid, then poverty is certainly here to stay for the near future: Republicans have just passed sweeping tax reform, expected to increase the national deficit by $1 trillion in the next ten years. Their solution? To offset tax cuts, they choose to make the flimsy American safety net even thinner.
Premilla Nadasen of the Washington Post summarizes the situation aptly: “As children, our parents told us of starving African children as an effort to get us to finish our dinner — but that moniker is an overused cliche. Perhaps they would have been more persuasive had they said, ‘Finish your dinner. There’s a child just down the block who would love to have what’s on your plate.’”
By James Gao
No matter how much Bill de Blasio has achieved as the mayor of New York City, he is still uniquely unqualified for his position for one reason: he doesn’t root for the Yankees. In a terrible twist of irony, the leader of the five boroughs and its immense population of proud hometown supporters is a diehard Red Sox fan. A few weeks ago, when the Yankees were one game away from defeating the Houston Astros and qualifying for the World Series, de Blasio sent New Yorkers into a frenzy by claiming, “It is constitutionally impossible for me to ‘support’ the New York Yankees.”
The lines between sports and politics are becoming increasingly blurred as time goes on, and de Blasio’s Yankee-supporting controversy proves to be no exception. Attacks from opposing mayoral candidates blasted the incumbent as being “disrespectful” and “a poor representative of New York”, with some constituents even arguing that de Blasio’s lack of support could hurt the advertising revenue that the Yankees bring to the city. But for some inhabitants of New York, the firestorm provided little more than an opportunity to tell the mayor what they really thought about his term; one scathing critic commented, “Just like everything else he’s done for the city, Bill de Blasio isn’t really for us.”
Unfortunately for Yankee-lovers and de Blasio critics alike, New York City’s 109th mayor isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. On November 7th, 2017, liberals cheered as de Blasio retained his position, contributing to sizeable Democratic victories in New Jersey and Virginia. With a sizeable margin of victory - 67%, compared to 23% for opposing Republican candidate Nicole Malliotakis, de Blasio has interpreted his resounding victory as a “mandate for his progressive policies” that have marked his first term as mayor. From implementing a free pre-school program for all four year-olds in the city to revamping the city’s affordable housing initiatives to ending the “stop and frisk” policies that have seen NYPD officers accused of racial profiling, de Blasio has forged a blazing trail as an effective, if not quiet, advocate for a more left-leaning New York City. From an objective standpoint, Bill de Blasio has been a blessing to New York City. Profiting from a revitalized economy and decreased crime, America’s largest city is in a much better state than it was four years ago.
However, his success is not without its own caveats. De Blasio was able to claim a decisive victory on Election Night, but it’s worth noting that the strength of his re-election is marred by low voter turnout; of the eligible voters in the five boroughs, less than twenty-five percent turned out to vote for the mayor. In fact, this may be part of a larger problem for Bill de Blasio’s personal legacy and political swaying power as a whole: if people can’t rally around their leader, then they’re less likely to be strong supporters of his policies. He’s been labelled as “America’s most irrelevant mayor”, with approval ratings hovering at about fifty percent. He is, essentially, a nobody - so much so to the degree that he, one of America’s most important mayors, has to wear a nametag to his meetings. The “progressive defender” of New York is widely scorned on a personal level - supporting the Red Sox, eating pizza with a fork and knife, and habitually oversleeping and arriving late to his events contributes to his deeply rooted unpopularity. The National Review sums up his political character aptly: “The tallest man in any room is somehow the most pathetic man in it.”
While Bill de Blasio has accumulated a reputation as what essentially amounts to the derpiest mayor in America, his troubles extend far past the outer limits of the city and into Albany, where he has a troubled relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo. While de Blasio and Cuomo are both Democrats, their similarities end there. The mayor has found few allies on the state level, and the two men have openly sparred over policy issues in the past. De Blasio begged Cuomo to help pay for free preschool in the city; Cuomo openly refused and retaliated by blaming the mayor for the city’s subway problems. De Blasio bit back by suggesting that Albany levy a new “millionaire tax” to help pay for subway improvements, but Cuomo condemned the proposal as “dead on arrival.” According to political insiders, the feud between the two men battling for “New York’s Top Progressive” is deeply personal, comparable to something out of a soap opera. But regardless of its roots, it poses a significant political obstacle for de Blasio in his upcoming term. One of de Blasio’s main goals for the city - a new sixteen-mile trolley connector between Brooklyn and Queens’ waterfronts - could be shuttered by a steely, unsympathetic Cuomo. The ambitious Brooklyn-Queens connector may turn out to be little more than a pipe dream if Cuomo does not grant the city permission to cross sections of state-owned land. De Blasio wants to solve the crises facing New York City, but in order to do that as quickly and efficiently as possible, he has to solve his own crisis with Albany first.
The mayor has also come under fire for fundraising policies that have been, to say the least, questionable. He was only recently cleared of criminality in federal investigations that saw accusations of de Blasio making policy promises to major campaign donors in his 2013 bid for mayor; the FBI essentially concluded that his policies were “shady, but technically legal”. Controversy stirred again just two weeks before the election when Jona Rechnitz, a former real estate investor who was recently convicted of conspiracy and bribery, stepped forward to claim that he had “bought access” to City Hall by exchanging favors and meetings with city officials through campaign donations. De Blasio vehemently denied the allegations, and no charges were pressed - but the incident only further contributed to his unfavorable perception from New Yorkers.
Even ignoring his problems with Andrew Cuomo and allegations against his campaign finance, de Blasio faces another challenge: making good on his promise to close Rikers Island, New York’s main jail complex - and an emblem of the United States’ failing justice system. Infamous for its poor living conditions and abuse of prisoners, de Blasio released his plan to close the Bronx’s “elephant in the room” over ten years by replacing them with smaller jails for each borough. The process will be tedious, and de Blasio will be long departed from the mayor’s office before the jail closes for good - but he must persevere in pursuing his vision for a New York City untainted by Rikers.
At the end of the day, although New Yorkers haven’t warmed up to de Blasio, they still entrusted him with the power to lead New York for the next four years. De Blasio may be “unlovable” to his constituents, but he is certainly a man who will get things done. From his love of the Red Sox to his six-foot-five stature, there are many quirks that define New York City’s mayor. But above all, Bill de Blasio is defined by his ambition and his progressive policies,the principles that will guide him as he enters his second term.
By James Gao
While the age of imperialism is widely regarded as having ended after World War II, the global fight for greater autonomy has not ended. For people on the streets of Catalonia and the classrooms of Texas alike, a want for independence is an unshakeable principle-- and a cause that many are willing to fight for. However, independence, while bringing self-government to the global roundtable, sparks instability as well.With an independence movement now brewing in the Middle East, the fragile political balance of the world’s most volatile region is being put to the test.
The Kurds are a Sunni ethnic minority in the Middle East, with sizeable populations in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. Their population numbers more than 30 million, earning them the title of the “largest ethnic group without a homeland”. They have been consistently, systematically oppressed by the governments of the Middle East, who see Kurdish unity and sovereignty as a threat. Most notable of those is Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government, who committed the Anfal genocide in the late 1980s, killing over 100,000 Kurds.
Kurdistan was established in the 1970s as an Iraqi autonomous region after an outburst of violence between the Kurds and the government of Iraq. While it is difficult for Kurdish citizens to forget that they were recipients of a mass genocide just a few decades ago, it has not stopped the Kurdish compromise from becoming a functional Kurdish-majority state. A strong central government located at the capital city of Erbil, Kurdistan takes advantage of rich oil reserves and a relatively organized militia, hinting at a Kurdish plan to accomplish something greater. Despite this, it looks like the prospects of the Kurds’ ultimate goal of establishing their own country still remains unfulfilled.
Now, the Kurds have taken the matter into their own hands; on September 24th, 2017, they held their own independence referendum within Iraqi Kurdistan, governed by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Unsurprisingly, the result was overwhelming positive, with around 92% of all voters advocating for an independent Kurdish state. However, as KRG authorities were quick to remind, the Kurds’ vote was nonbinding and merely an indicator for their continued want for independence.
Despite their insistence on the relative insignificance of their referendum, international actors want to nip the thought of Kurdish freedom in the bud. In the days leading up to the vote, Iran, Iraq and Turkey all condemned the holding of the referendum as “illegitimate” and demanded its cancellation. When it was held regardless, the Middle Eastern leaders followed up on their word and instituted harsh punitive measures. Iraq immediately announced it would be holding joint military drills with Iran and Turkey and threatened to retake control over Kurdistan. The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has boldly stated that he “would do whatever was needed to protect Iraqi unity,” but called for peace and objected to the potential use of military force. For al-Abadi, the implications that independence would have on the Kurds have not even crossed his mind; his only interest is protecting Iraqi stability.
Several major world powers seem to share al-Abadi’s mindset. The United States and other Western nations were uncharacteristically outspoken against Kurdish independence, despite historically backing the Kurds in their endeavours. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson labelled the referendum as “illegitimate,” while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres emphasized its “potentially destabilizing effects.” Their dissent stems not from a hatred of the Kurds, but rather, protecting stability in post-war Iraq. Al-Abadi, seen as an ally to the United States, is up for re-election next year, and U.S. foreign policy officials fear Kurdish actions may undermine his chances at electoral success. In addition, the Kurdish “peshmerga” militia is a critical ally in the U.S.’s fight against the Islamic State. American military experts see this new referendum as a distraction from the fighting, causing a lapse in military focus that could allow the terrorist group to regain some of its former power.
Israel, however, has broken rank with its American ally and has come out in full support of the Kurdish push for autonomy. While parallels can be drawn between the Kurds and the struggle for Palestinian statehood that Israelis actively oppress, the country is nonetheless ecstatic to see its largest oil trading partner pushing for statehood. As Israel is denied access to crude oil by its rivals in the Gulf States, it relies heavily on Kurdistan to ebb that wound; 77% of all oil imports into Israel come from Kurdistan. The stronger of a nation that Kurdistan becomes, the stronger of a prospective ally Israel has in the Gulf. Together, Israel hopes, they and Kurdistan can unite in their hatred of the Iranian and Iraqi hegemony and push back against the Arab World’s uncontested control over the Middle East.
Another conflicted actor impacted by the Kurdish referendum is Turkey. Turkey itself has a sizeable Kurdish population, one that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has labelled as a “terrorist group” and heavily antagonized. The last thing the Turkish government wants to do is encourage Turkish Kurdistan to follow in Iraqi Kurdistan’s footsteps. Erdogan’s policy towards the KRG, however, has fluctuated over the years; Turkey is Erbil’s largest trading partner, and Iraqi Kurdistan is so reliant on Ankara to the point where it has effectively become a “Turkish vassal state”. These vastly different relations between Turkish Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan are a result of Erdogan’s whimsical foreign policy, and have sent a mixed message to the Kurds. Now, Turkey is attempting to clarify its feelings towards Kurdish opposition by telling the KRG “no”. Now, they have taken bold actions like cutting off crucial oil trade with Kurdistan and increasing military drills. Regardless of whatever attempts at friendship may have occurred between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan in the past, it is clear now that they have no soft spot in their heart for the Kurds.
In recent weeks, with Iran and Turkey increasing their aggression towards the Kurds, many are considering the Kurdish referendum as a huge failure for the Kurds.The issue stems from the important Kurdish city of Kirkuk, originally under Iraqi control until the government was forced out by a 2014 ISIS offensive. Quickly afterwards, the Kurdish peshmerga stormed the city, displacing ISIS and claiming the economic powerhouse of a city known for its oilfield. The Iraqi government has retaliated by forcefully wresting control of the territory, with a surprise Iraqi attack in mid-October taking Kirkuk from Kurdish hands. This unexpected military action has thrown Iraqi Kurdistan into disarray, with unorganized peshmerga quickly conceding huge amounts of territory to the Iraqi government. In addition, Kirkuk’s fall has fractured the KRG, with bitter internal divisions resulting in many major Kurdish leaders being forced out of their positions. Before the referendum, conservative leaders warned that pushing for independence would result in opening “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East. Now, with Kurdistan weak and divided, it is hard to call their prediction incorrect.
For the Kurds, long victims of oppression, this independence referendum was a desperate plea to the international community for greater representation and fairer treatment. Unfortunately, in today’s atmosphere, the wants and rights of minority groups come second to maintaining the careful power balance that keeps Middle Eastern violence to a minimum. In our current geopolitical climate, the impacts of Kurdish independence cause much more harm than it does help. After one hundred years of waiting for a country to call their own, it looks like the Kurdish people may have to wait just a little while longer.
By: James Gao
This week, the South Korean population discovered the target of its next fanatical obsession: newly elected President Moon Jae-in’s unnamed bodyguard, who has quickly become a Twitter sensation for his good looks. While the Internet’s infatuation with Moon’s bodyguard may be in good fun, seeing as his election comes at a critical period for the country, Moon must hope that his presidency will be even half as sensational and widely appealing as his bodyguard’s looks.
Following the disaster that tainted ousted President Park Geun-hye, the South Korean population scrambled to find a suitable replacement for the country’s highest office. They needed an uncontroversial candidate who could bury the scandals of the past and focus on the future. They needed a leader who could effectively respond to the rising tensions in East Asia that threaten South Korea’s security.
On May 9th, 2017, the South Korean people found their answer in Moon.
Moon, a member of the Democratic Party of South Korea, is the first liberal candidate to be elected to the South Korean in almost ten years. Previously a human rights lawyer, Moon served as a member of South Korea’s national assembly and ran unsuccessfully against Park Geun-hye in the 2012 presidential elections. For the entirety of his political career, Moon seeked to paint himself as a politician who connected to the people; an advocate for the common man who rejected the elite “establishment” of political insiders like Park. In the first week of his presidency, Moon has publicly rejected the use of butlers, and pledged to forsake residing in the presidential palace of South Korea in favour of a more humble office in Seoul.
In many aspects, Moon is a foil to the disgraced Park Geun-hye. He represents the change that the South Korean people wanted as they seek to put the remnants of Park’s tarnished presidency behind them. Nowhere is the symbolic change Moon brings more palpable than in his foreign policy.
For South Korea, effective foreign policy is critical in protecting the country’s sovereignty amidst unpredictable neighbors. South Korea is nothing but a helpless onlooker in the eastern Asia region as its next-door neighbors - North Korea and China - aggressively pursue their self-interests.
In the case of North Korea, the country’s mere existence is an existential threat to South Korea. The country has recently intensified its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program, with the Kim regime seeing “significant technological advances” in the range of its missiles, posing an immediate threat to its sworn enemy immediately south of the 38th parallel. In dealing with North Korea, Moon hopes to revive the “Sunshine Policy” of previous liberal South Korean presidents: one focused on diplomacy, openness and willingness to negotiate with Kim Jong-un. Moon involved himself in implementing this policy when he served as former President Roh Moo-hyun’s chief of staff in 2005. During that period, the Korean Peninsula saw increased economic cooperation between the two Koreas, more diplomatic dialogues and many concessions made to the North Koreans. While the policy was abandoned in 2008 after North Korea backtracked on its promises to end its uranium enrichment program, Moon wants to give the policy a second shot - but in order to do that, he must take into account the changes in the Asian geopolitical landscape that have occurred in the past nine years.
First on Moon’s to-do list is establishing strong relations with the Trump administration. While South Korea’s left has been historically anti-American, Moon recognizes the importance of the two countries’ alliance and pledges to cooperate with Trump in order to resolve the North Korean crisis. However, Moon is likely to find friction with his American counterpart, unsurprisingly due to Trump’s confusing policy positions. While Trump recently stated that he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong-un, his actions speak louder than his words - and Trump’s actions are the exact militaristic aggression against North Korea that Moon wants to avoid. Trump, having previously said that he would not rule out the possibility of preemptively striking North Korea and heralding the use of aggression, will need to compromise with Moon on creating a united foreign policy approach. Without Moon’s approval, the prospect of using military force looks unlikely in the near future. But it is unclear as to how willing the Trump administration will be to give in on its current high-pressure approach to the Kim regime.
Moon’s policies are likely to cause similar friction with Japan, a fellow close ally of America whose security is also compromised by the growing North Korean nuclear threat. While relations between the two countries are strained due to the legacy of Korean “comfort women” sex slaves used by the Japanese empire during World War II, cooperation on the subject of North Korea is critical. Much like Donald Trump, conservative Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to continue forcing the North Koreans to back down through aggressive action. It is imperative that Moon and Abe also reach agreement on the North Korean crisis, and continue their military information sharing program that may be critical for the safety of both countries.
The disagreement between the United States, Japan and South Korea is further exacerbated by the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, currently being implemented jointly by the United States and South Korea. The system, which consists of several truck-based rocket launchers stationed in South Korea, would be able to hit any incoming North Korean missiles over South Korea and Japan. While the agreement was a strong step forward for the country’s relations with America, they have also simultaneously antagonized China, something that Moon does not want. THAAD includes a missile scouting radar that ranges into Chinese territory, and Chinese government officials fear that the system would allow America to spy on China and give them a military advantage in Asia. In response to South Korea’s deployment of the system, the government has encouraged the boycotting of South Korean businesses and tourism. This has seriously stifled the South Korean economy; China is South Korea’s largest trading partner and the country has seen a small recession since Chinese boycotts began.
Moon has repeatedly called for a reconsideration of the system’s deployment, citing it as an unnecessary measure that only worsens tensions on the peninsula. In addition, the country’s economic growth is contingent on a compromise with China. THAAD has already been half-deployed, and, as such, prompting a removal of the system now would be costly and strain the country’s relationship with America. Instead, the two countries will likely reach a negotiation that soothes Beijing’s fears and lifts the dampers on the South Korean economy. Meanwhile, Moon will pressure China to use its economic leverage over Pyongyang (China is the hermit kingdom’s sole trading partner) to suppress the North’s nuclear weapons program. The first steps to repairing Sino-Korean relations have already been taken, with foreign ministers from both countries meeting and pledging support for improved future relations.
Moon Jae-in is faced with the difficult task of appeasing two giants: maintaining strong relations with both China and the United States. While a difficult feat, cooperation with both countries is needed to deal with the immediate threat of North Korea. Moon’s pro-diplomacy North Korean policies will likely lead to conflict between South Korea and its allies - and that is when Moon Jae-in’s negotiation skills will be truly put to the test.
Only ten days into his presidency, Moon Jae-in is still in his “Honey-Moon” phase. The atmosphere surrounding the newest South Korean president is optimistic. He has been described as “pragmatic” and “humble”, and saw approval ratings skyrocket within his first week. But it won’t be long after the new Moon that the sun will rise again, and only after Moon’s words become actions will we truly know if South Korea’s foreign policy future will be all sunshine and rainbows.